June 1, 2014

Who’s Social Now?

Filed under: Business, Consumer, Jewish Organizations, Parenting, Social Media — marcstober @ 2:41 pm

So this was an interesting tweet:

There are times when I wish the religious organizations I’ve been involved with would take some marketing lessons from the retail world. But, sometimes, we should value what we’re doing better: community and social stuff. I mean, the Jewish world is in the business of giving people a way to find community and social on Friday night as we have been for thousands for years. Businesses trying to add community and social features to their website are WAY behind at what community really means.

Indeed, I came across this tweet because I was ordering labels for kids going to summer camp. I am going to let the nonprofit Jewish summer camp meet some our family’s needs for community and social. Try as they might, the e-commerce company trying to be social seems a little forced. But they probably make good labels.

January 20, 2014

When Instagram is the (small) Sanctuary

Filed under: Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 10:07 am

It was just Tu B’Shvat. I really had good intentions to do something for Tu B’Shvat this year. We could have done a little seder with the dried fruit, or maybe even found something to go to in the community. I mean, we had just gotten back from a family trip to Israel and were supposed to be feeling all connected the land and all.

And then, after kids went to bed, I was looking at Twitter. And seeing tweets about the holiday from my more religious or environmental-activist “friends.” Tu B’Shvat was tonight?We had pasta and broccoli, nary a tree food in sight. (And we’re not even one of the those families that gets the kids to eat the broccoli by calling it “little trees.” Though I did put some olive oil on it….)

The next morning I was still fretting when I realized, what is the tree fruit that I consume even more religiously than I observe my actual religion? That is probably the most consumed tree food in the world? That you you have to brew first? Yes, coffee! I was certainly planning to start my day with coffee. It turned out I had Max with me when I stopped at Starbucks, and he wanted hot chocolate. Cocoa beans grow on trees too, right? The second most important tree food! So we stopped at Starbucks, and I Instagrammed and tweeted this picture.

To the casual observer, I was all that is wrong with parents today: ignoring my kid to look at my phone while plying him with sugar on weekday morning. But for me, I was making the experience sacred, holy, special, kadosh. I took a common stop at a chain restaurant and elevated it. By taking that picture and posting those words, it didn’t matter where I was. I was celebrating Tu B’Shvat, and doing it with my community: my virtual Jewish community of people, some of whom I don’t often get to see in real life, but who, through social media, let me be part of a Jewish community wherever I go. Of course, finding real-life community is great, but to those who say I would be better off if I put down my phone: I seriously doubt I was going to connect with another Jew about Tu B’Shvat that morning otherwise.

Judaism gives us the idea of mikdash me’at—the small sanctuary. The idea is that we can make things holy wherever we are, in our homes and communities. It’s a beautiful idea that I love about Judaism and that’s helped us survive as a people. This year, we sanctified Tu B’Shvat with Instagram at Starbucks. I still pray “next year in Jerusalem”–but more likely, next year will be on Pinterest.

August 30, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on Way to Tot Shabbat

Filed under: Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 9:02 am

Cross-posted to JewishBoston.com.

People tend to use religion at certain points in life: baby namings, bar mitzvahs, funerals. When Cheryl and I got married, we wanted a Jewish wedding. Having a toddler, however, wasn’t a life stage we thought we’d associate with religion—diapers, sippies and tantrums aren’t exactly compatible with deep spiritual reflection. But it turned out that it was the toddler years that established us as a religious—maybe not Shulchan Aruch religious, but still nominally religious—family.

When Cheryl and I met, I was the more religious one. Being Jewish was important to both of us in theory, but I was the one going to synagogue on Saturday mornings and scanning restaurant menus for the most kosher option. After we got married, I kept going to Shabbat morning services usually by myself, as I’d been doing since college. At first, having a baby didn’t change much: we were a little more likely to go to synagogue (or not) as a family, but little Hannah just slept in her car seat and we participated as adults. But once our daughter started being awake, making noise, and needing to move around, it seemed like none of us were going to be going to services much.

I’d been aware that somewhere, down the hall in the religious school wing I’d never been in, there were programs during services for children, but I didn’t know exactly what. So, one Saturday morning, when Hannah was about one-and-a-half, we nervously wandered down there. A guitar-playing woman named Dale welcomed us, who told us that Hannah was exactly the right age for Tot Shabbat. Actually, she was a little too young to really participate, but she’d grow, and with that welcome, we became regulars.

Fortunately, we were in the right place at the right time. Soon, there was a new religious school director excited to improve things, and a new service leader, Julia, who ran a business teaching toddler music-and-movement classes. Together they came up with a routine that infused Jewish content into a toddler music class as good as any, and attendance grew. Sure, we could sign our kid up for some sort of secular class on Saturday mornings, but now we had an activity for the children, lunch at kiddush, a small but growing community of like-minded families to socialize with, and still got to, in a way, go to services. The maintenance staff even began setting up a preschool-sized table at kiddush. If nothing else, we were getting our money’s worth out of our synagogue dues!

And that’s how the funny thing happened: we’d established the rhythm of observing Shabbat, of going to synagogue as being the default thing to do on Saturday morning, and so became a Shabbat-observant family. We knew we succeeded when Hannah once told us that God is candy, because at the end of services every week the children were called up to the bimah of the main sanctuary to get a piece of candy—hopefully not the end of her spiritual development, but a successful early start! We aren’t shomer shabbat by strict standards in terms of all the negative rules of not driving, cooking, or watching TV; but, at least for us, focusing on the positive commandments of celebrating Shabbat with a family dinner and participating in a synagogue community is a more compelling path. And we’ve cemented this as a foundation of our family life.

Of course, children get older. Hannah is starting third grade, well into the school-age years, and she spent part of this past summer at pluralistic but religious Jewish camp. Our son is four, and in another year we’ll have moved fully out of the Tot Shabbat cohort. I’m not sure what comes next. Will I really want to go to the main sanctuary service in the same synagogue, now that I get to? Can Shabbat at synagogue ever seem as special to older children with more sophisticated interests, not to mention already going to Hebrew school during the week? How do we maintain a sense of community as the ranks of synagogue members with children the same age as ours swells to include many who weren’t interested in Jewish observance until a bar or bat mitzvah came on the horizon? Nevertheless, I’m sure that in celebrating Shabbat from our children’s earliest years, it will always seem like a way of life that is normal to them and be something we can come back to.

So, a two part message: First, if you’re a family with a toddler, don’t be afraid to check out what’s going on down the hall in that religious school wing. And even if you happen to show up on a week when nothing is going on because you’re not yet familiar with the mysterious machinations of the school year calendar, and even if you have to leave early because your kid had a tantrum and spilled the juice: persevere, try and find a community, and Shabbat may become one of the best parts of having young children. Secondly, if you’re a synagogue, offer these programs, publicize them well, and don’t forget the little details like a good place to change diapers or refill a sippy cup that make all the different to a frazzled parent—compared to engaging, say, pre-teens, it doesn’t take much to make a lasting impact.

December 7, 2009

Pancakes on Saturday Morning

Filed under: Food, Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 11:17 pm

In my family, we have a ritual on Saturday morning. Max and I are usually the first ones up, so I take him downstairs and let the girls sleep. And by the time they are up, I’m doing actual cooking for breakfast, which we don’t do any other day of the week. At one point, challah french toast was the favorite; more recently, it’s been pancakes or banana muffins or even vegan double-chocolate waffles and pumpkin scones.

Saturday, of course, is also the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat. Shabbat should be about resting and recharging and spending peaceful time together as a family, and my ritual fits nicely with this. Waking up early, rushing out the door after a bowl of cereal and stopping to buy coffee on the way to where we’re going would not be in the spirit of Shabbat. The only problem is that cooking breakfast isn’t really in the spirit of Shabbat, either; cooking itself is a type of work that traditional Jews don’t do on the Sabbath at all.

This past week I did something different. Every Saturday at 8:30 a.m. our rabbi holds a study session. He e-mails the congregation the day before with the topic. It’s always an interesting topic, but not usually reason enough to leave my wife with both children on her hands on the one day she can stay in bed a little late. This week, however, the topic was so personally compelling that I put a batch of banana muffins in the oven, kissed the family goodbye, and went to learn about why Jacob Neusner, a prominent academic Conservative Rabbi who was raised Reform (like I was) was is returning to reform.

The interesting topic is not Neusner’s choice per se, but what differentiates two denominations that, in real ways, are competing and converging. Our rabbi said that he and a colleague in the Reform movement he is friends with both describe their jobs as encouraging congregants to “make Jewish choices,” and if that meant they are much the same, so what?

Having been fairly involved myself in both movements for different parts of my life I have my own ideas about the differences, and think that when lifelong Conservative Jews call our left-of-center (using “left” colloquially in a non-political sense) Conservative synagogue “like Reform” it’s because they don’t really know the Reform movement. It’s like when people say France is Americanized because of McDonald’s and a Disney park, ignoring the system of laws, work ethic, decentralized public education, religious history, etc. that make America unique.

The next day, I recalled a conversation that made the difference crystal clear. A couple years ago, I had the chance to talk to a local Reform rabbi about my Shabbat observance as a participant in CJP’s Ikkarim program. I asked him specifically about my pancakes-on-Saturday-morning conundrum: how it felt appropriate for my young family, but wasn’t the highest level of observance that I hoped to eventually (like, when the kids went off to college) achieve. His answer was that if cooking breakfast is the Shabbat practice that works for me, I should do it. From the Reform perspective, making a Jewish choice was not about making a choice guided by Jewish law, and there was no “credit” given to a choice that was not meaningful just because it honored Jewish law. This appeals to a lot of people, but it left me unsatisfied. And that’s why even though I agree with Jabob Neusner’s platform, I’m still not a Reform Jew.

Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (admittedly a novel, not religious teaching) writes about the “shortfall…. Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth, husband and wife, Zion and Jew. They called the shortfall ‘the world.'” Pancakes on Shabbat are part of “the world.” Figuring out how to live in the world is the challenge.

June 15, 2008

Finding Time

Filed under: Parenting — marcstober @ 10:31 pm

Today is Fathers’ Day. With two young children now, fatherhood is in full swing. I figure I at least can take the time to write a blog entry.

I finished my Paternity Leave post a few weeks ago with a vague mention of a “great challenge out there for me” and I want to go into a little more detail about what I was thinking.

Specifically, I was thinking about a professional challenge. Over my career, I have found myself solving the same problems again and again. This experience has given me a couple ideas for new software, and more recently an idea for a book. I don’t know that any of these ideas is going to get me rich, but these are problems that more than one company has paid me a decent salary to solve, and people less smart than me have started businesses and published books with less qualifications. And, even if I didn’t get rich developing any of these ideas (getting rich has never been for me a goal in itself) doing so might help me advance in my career, or achieve some recognition, or at least prove an interesting intellectual challenge and fodder for this blog.

So, what’s the problem? It could take a serious commitment of time–prime daytime included–to take any of these ideas very far beyond the napkin-sketch stage. It would sound a lot cooler to say I wrote the next great Web 2.0 application on a free weekend while drinking beer in my pajamas but that’s not going to happen (though there might be something to the idea of advancing in short, creative bursts). I have a job; setting aside the obvious conflicts of time and money, I think that with a full-time job, there is only so much else I can do. More importantly, I have a family, and (though they’ll say I ignore them to play with the computer) I make a conscious effort to spend time on activities that will enrich all of us. Plus, I just fall asleep. Some people may get ahead by working or studying when other people are sleeping, but avoiding sleep will not be my ongoing plan for success.

I’m reading the book Good to Great which says that great organizations and their leader embody the Stockdale Paradox: they confront “brutal” reality without losing hope. Paternity leave was my reality check: I’m not going to learn and create everything I want to in my spare time. It’s going to take a real plan.

February 7, 2008


Filed under: Parenting — marcstober @ 7:02 am

I haven’t blogged in over two months, and there’s only one person I can blame it on: Max.

Well, I can’t really blame him for anything. He’s just a baby.

He is just over one month old and finally starting to be aware of things. He can’t say anything, of course, but if I look into his eyes, I can hear him. “Hi Daddy!” “I want to play with you and Hannah!” Or, when I was carrying him while putting leftovers from dinner in the refrigerator, “I saw a bottle in there, why don’t you give it to me?” The rest of the cleaning up from dinner would wait.

November 23, 2007

Computing three-and-three-quarters

Filed under: Parenting, Software Blog — marcstober @ 1:03 pm

My daughter Hannah is three-and-three-quarters years old–don’t call her three! There’s something new at this age of three-going-on four where she’s finally competent with the basic skills of kid life: “Do you want to play?”, “I have to go to the bathroom really bad!“, “More macaroni, please!”, and so on.

As part of that she has started to use the computer. She can log herself in, use the trackpad, and do everything except type in the NickJr.com URL (I supposed I should set up a shortcut she can click) to find the Flash games she likes. I’ve even seen her intuit, without reading, where the “Print” or “Next” button is going to be in the bottom right corner of a window. (Isn’t there something inherently validating in seeing your work printed?) She gets frustrated and wants help, which I don’t mind in theory because playing together is better than just letting her watch TV (though not so useful when you need to get housework done) and because, eventually, I’m sure I’ll be concerned about what she’s doing on the Internet on her own.

When Hannah was born we knew she was being born into a different world than we were as far as computers go (we joked about her needing her own e-mail address as a baby), but, I don’t think Hannah’s experience is going to be so different than our own. I first used a computer in kindergarten when I was 5, and was instantly hooked. Maybe there is a certain (young) age at which kids are ready to use computers, and we didn’t miss that much. Of course, what she can do with a computer is going to be different (that kindergarten computer, a Commodore PET, was the single one on a cart that rotated among all the elementary schools in my town).

November 3, 2006

Nahanton Park

Filed under: Newton, Parenting — marcstober @ 5:56 pm

Hannah didn’t have school, so I took the day off and we went on a “nature walk” in Nahanton Park. I drive by this park every day and have wondered what’s there.

Nahanton Park

First we had a (small for me; big for her) climb up a hill. For the top you could get your bearings: in one direction, the “Eiffel” radio tower (off Needham Street) rose above the trees, and in the other direction you could see the JCC’s clock tower.
A number of trails lead down to the Charles River, including one along the river on which you could push a stroller or wheelchair (except for a spot where a tree had fallen). Hannah had far too much fun just picking up pebbles off the ground and throwing them into the water, but really how often do you get to throw pebbles into the actual Charles river?
You can hear the traffic of Route 128 in the background; but if you can ignore it, it feels like you are much further out in the country.

There is a trail map and other excellent information about this and other parks at the Newton Conservators website.

August 31, 2006

Barney vs. Free Speech

Filed under: Parenting, Politics — marcstober @ 10:09 am

It turns out that Barney, the purple dinosaur, is not all hugs and smiles as he is at the center of a legal battle over the right to parody him.

What is most disturbing to me is that Barney appears primarily on public television. I tend to think of public television as an institution that exists, among other reasons, to provide an alternative source of information that doesn’t depend on a profit motive. So it seems kind of hypocritical for a studio they employ to be starting intellectual property lawsuits for apparently commercial reasons.

Interestingly this isn’t the first time I’ve written about issues with PBS children’s shows not playing nice when confronted with real-world issues, and the common thread seems to HIT Entertainment, a childrens-media company owned by a private equity firm Apax. So, has PBS made a deal with the devil? I remember a time (maybe when I was kid) when it seemed appropriate to let kids watch PBS (but not other networks) because Sesame Street, et al didn’t seem so “bad” for them. These days, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference.

I’ll probably keep sending a little donation to WGBH, but I should send a similar one to the EFF for pointing out this issue.

(The most interesting thing about Barney to me is that my two-and-a-half year old, who loved the show when she was one, has already outgrown Barney [and Teletubbies] for characters with more depth.)

August 15, 2006

It’s all downhill from here

Filed under: Parenting — marcstober @ 9:58 am

Well I know not really — there’s still the matter of potty training, after all — but this weekend when we went to Tot shabbat and the leader asked all the kids to come sit on the floor in front, she just — went and did it! And this follows a general theme of independence, highlighted at my sister’s wedding a week before where she just wanted to go play with her (actually my) cousins — no adult interaction required. In contrast, my 1-year old cousin, while much adored by the older kids (including Hannah), still needed her dad behind her almost all the time. It’s just nice to be able to go to a function, let Hannah go play with the kids while the adults talk to the adults. It’s nice to have reached that stage, I remember thinking how far away that seemed at a party a few years ago.

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